Wednesday, May 30, 2012

From the Back of the Bus to Separate Airport Carpets and the Challenge of Rosa Parks

[This post begins a series of meditations on Rosa Parks on the road to the celebration of her centenary in 2013. It also frames the presentation of the art quilt in my Political Series entitled “Rosa Parks, Mother of the Civil Rights Movement: Celebrating 100 Years (1913-2013)” from my “Portraits II: From Montgomery to Paris” art quilt exhibition in progress, which is scheduled at the Rosa Parks Museum and Library in Montgomery, Alabama]

The bus, in light of the arrest of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 for refusing to give up her seat and the famous 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, is one of the most ubiquitous and enduring symbols of the civil rights era. It is a space that I have continually engaged and meditated on myself in part because of my birth and upbringing in Montgomery and love and appreciation of civil rights history and intellectual work on the topic. Seeing any rude bus drivers to this day (and they still exist in some cities and even on some campuses) inevitably makes me sad and makes me wonder how far we have truly come from the days of James Blake. In a way, in everyday life, the bus ride remains, for many of us, a symbol of freedom, hope and great possibility. When I think of notions of the black public sphere and arguments about how much it has been altered in the post-civil rights era, I also think of public buses as spaces that sometimes still bring a diverse class of people together in some areas, as segregated neighborhoods enabled contact among some black doctors, lawyers, teachers and working class people. This is the kind of dynamism that Melissa Harris-Perry relates to black barbershops in her scholarship, for example. Airplanes, like buses, are absolutely no less relevant to civil rights concerns, including the discourses related to segregation in public transportation on the basis of factors such as race and class.

An unsettling phenomenon I have observed at some airports and with several airlines in recent months is my main concern here. However, before I get to it, I want to say a little more about the bus. As someone who commuted on the regional bus back and forth to Sacramento to my job as a University of California professor in Davis, I valued the many opportunities that I had to meet and at times help mentor students from other universities in the region whom I would not have encountered otherwise. I also met many workers on campus on the bus and had opportunities to dialogue with them and to hear about issues that they faced. As I left the bus one morning when it got to my campus, I once slipped a young white woman with a small baby $20, which was literally all of the money I had on me at the time, because she had been talking to a passenger about how her mother had thrown her out of the house with just a bus ticket to get to a relative. It was very clear that she did not have a sense of what the trip would entail that was stretched before her over the next couple of days.

Because the train no longer came to my hometown by the mid-1990s, the bus was the easiest, most straightforward and economical way of traveling back and forth from Durham, North Carolina for me as a graduate student. Back then, I became very familiar with the ins and outs of bus traveling, always felt safe and have very fond memories of that time. I will never forget the passengers I met over the years and the wonderful fellowship that I shared with some of them at times, including a woman I met when I was 27 who had just lost her mother, was traveling back after the funeral, and got into a conversation on topics from the Iraq War to the Bible with two young men (one of whom was a veteran of the war) and me. The Iraq veteran was traumatized by the war and was struggling with a lot of issues. As the four of us were parting ways, we were almost tearful as we hugged one another in the parking lot and said farewell, as if we had been lifelong friends.

Interstate buses, in light of the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s, also have profound historical significance and are important to think of to this day against the backdrop of civil rights history. This perspective seems all the more urgent, for example, when I consider how astonished I have been myself in recent years to witness that since my first time seeing it in the late 1980s, the bus station in one major Southern city (I won’t mention which one but a great many of you likely have an idea) has not been expanded or remodeled one iota to accommodate the many more passengers who use it, including the many Mexican migrants who have come to the area. This benign neglect has been evident there even as the airport in that same city is a first-class facility replete with white porch rockers and kind and attentive bathroom attendants (one year, there were miniature Christmas trees beside all of the bathroom sinks), evoking the luxury and romance of the mythic Old South! This disparity unsettled me given that I knew from having seen them with my own eyes that many mothers-including black, Latina and white women -were contending with flooded-out toilets in two of five stalls as they attempted to take care of their babies and children, while also dealing with two out of five sinks that didn’t even work, or that had no towels and empty soap dispensers. When my grandmother and I went on a bus trip to New York in 1999 (flying was out of the question for her), I remember being troubled when hearing a white male bus driver rudely tell a young black woman with a baby who kept crying that he would put her off the bus if she did not keep her baby quiet, which reminded me of a scene in William Wells Brown's slave narrative in which a black slave baby was killed because he would not stop crying. The compulsive privatization of transportation in this nation that has occurred over the past few decades, coupled with the racialized avoidance of public buses in the U.S. as they have been marked sometimes as “unsafe” spaces (i.e. for white people), make it important to challenge such presumptions.

I have also learned a lot and made many observations over the years from frequent air travel. I took my first airplane flight at age 18, which was a shopping trip to New York with friends after I graduated from high school. I took a few trips here and there after that. However, air travel became a way of life for me once I moved to California in 1998 for my first job. In my first years, I tended to go home twice a year. I booked tickets through the travel agency on campus or through sites such as in the effort to find the best deal (I will never forget the $250 ticket to Montgomery that had four stops along the way). When I began to travel more frequently, this approach became less efficient.

I began to stick with one major airline as I entered a phase during which I literally kept a packed suitcase, made the cross-country trip on a monthly basis, and had two or three airline tickets in rotation at a time. When I was still an assistant professor, I was pleasantly surprised when I became classified as a "preferred"/"elite" passenger and began to receive upgrades to first class on almost all of my trips. The airport was usually bright and sunny, and the airport staff always put a lot into preparing the large international planes for us and having them ready for the long cross-country trip. Having the privilege of preferred travel was definitely beneficial at times. I think of a conference where I was scheduled to speak in New York in 2005. I got to the airport in Sacramento early that morning only to learn that the flight had been canceled. Passengers were told to go to customer service to have their flights rebooked; preferred passengers were sent to a special line. When we spilt off, I noticed that I was the only woman heading to the short line, along with a small cluster of white men wearing business suits, as an extremely long line formed at customer service. My turn at the counter came very quickly. The agent realized that he could get me to New York by 1:00 a.m. via a flight through Las Vegas, asked me if I had my suitcase with me (“Good! You know how to travel!”), and then said, “I’m going to get you on this flight!” He stopped the line, ran over to that gate, and within 15 minutes, my flight left. Even on the East Coast, the miles that I quickly amassed with so much travel domestically and abroad led me to be reclassified as a preferred passenger and to the privilege of regular first class upgrades, which definitely has its conveniences.

In spite of the pleasures, comforts and conveniences of so much first-class travel beginning when I lived in California, including added leg room that makes travel far more comfortable for a tall person like me, I have been uncomfortable with some things, such as policies that allow the first class cabin to be fed a full meal as others in the coach section are given a snack and are unable to eat. I find this approach to be all the more problematic in light of the compulsive snack food pricing policies that have emerged at so many airlines in recent years. Even the very use of the term "first class" by airlines throws into relief the issue of class in relation to this mode of travel.

These days, the carpets that we hear about most frequently in the media are the “red carpets” of celebrities. But I am concerned about the implications of the red carpets designated for coach passengers pictured above. One policy that I find to be particularly unsettling, and honestly, quite ridiculous, is having “preferred” passengers walk down a separate, sometimes tagged-off carpet to board flights at some major airlines, as the coach passengers are then asked to walk down another. The policies are likely well-meaning and are obviously developed in the interests of customers. Yet, while they invoke divisions on the basis of class and not race, they curiously recall and recast some of the very forms of hierarchy and stratification in public transportation that civil rights activists fought against. In the midst of the economic downturn, increasing concerns have emerged about issues of inequality in this society as well as in global contexts. The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been at the forefront among movements that are now challenging inequities based on class in this nation. I find it odd myself that subtle forms of social division are being emphasized in spaces such as some airports in this new millennium when so many struggles of the twentieth century were designed to rid us of the doctrine of “separate but equal.” In general, even prior to Plessy v. Ferguson, the famous 1884 case of Ida B. Wells, which she fought and won when she faced racial discrimination on a train as a first-class passenger when asked to give up her seat to a white man and move to a crowded smoking car, illustrated that a first-class ticket does not guarantee respect for black passengers on public conveyances and that is still true. As a black woman, it was unsettling once to be in line to board a flight among preferred passengers, and to be told, "we are boarding preferred passengers now," when I was one; I reported the incident to the airline.

Jim Crow, as the work of the historian Michael Honey reminds us, was not necessarily about excluding blacks as much as it was about keeping them “in their place.” In public bathrooms, the little sink “For Colored Only” positioned beside a nice big sink “For Whites Only” drove home this message of humiliation and degradation for blacks. (Honey did a brilliant presentation on this topic at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in 2006 when he served as a keynote speaker at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature conference with the theme “Labor, Literature and the U.S. South,” whose program I coordinated that year). These politics have also been explored recently in the film The Help, which highlighted an attempt of Hilly Holbrook to mandate that separate toilets be installed for black maids in the garages of their employers. These are the very kinds of politics that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed in Memphis, Tennessee where two sanitation workers died tragically in a garbage truck compactor trying to shield themselves from a rainstorm because they were not allowed to wait inside with their white co-workers. The film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge starring Halle Berry underscores the insanity and absurdity of these segregationist politics where it features the actress as the Dandridge character-who has been told that she cannot swim in the pool at a Las Vegas Hotel where she is staying-brushing her foot across the water. When she returns later, it has been emptied and drained. The irony is that black male workers have done the draining and are in the process of decontaminating the pool that has supposedly been contaminated by blackness! What a conundrum!

I am just not sure that something like a separate carpet is needed at airports when first class and preferred passengers have been and can be boarded as easily without them since they board early anyway. I am astonished that there has not been more public dialogue and concern about such airline policies where they exist. In this day and time when many of us have places to go and things to do, getting there is the main mission and not much else counts. In this day and time, I can understand how the weary traveler can come to tolerate, ignore, brush off, or too easily acquiesce to policies and practices that should ideally be scrutinized, questioned and resisted. Always, we must ask the question, what would Rosa Parks do? I have a feeling that she probably would not approve of those separate airport carpets given the lingering memory of the "colored section" on Southern public buses.

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